Kara Swisher

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In Midst of Mobile Pivot, Mozilla CEO Kovacs to Step Down Later This Year

Gary Kovacs, who has been CEO of Mozilla for just over two years, will be stepping down later this year, the company announced this morning to employees. The Mountain View, Calif.-based open source software nonprofit foundation (which is also a for-profit company) said it will be searching for a new leader immediately to replace Kovacs, who will remain on the board of Mozilla.

“After three years of a lot of change to move the organization faster forward, I wanted to move back to something more commercial,” said Kovacs in an interview yesterday, in which he outlined the many changes made at Mozilla since he arrived, including adding staff, opening global offices and, most of all, doubling down in mobile. “It is really a different Mozilla.”

Kovacs came to Mozilla in late 2010 — after stints as an exec at Sybase and Adobe, as well as at Zi Corporation, a company specializing in embedded software and services for mobile and consumer devices — to lead the development and direction of its best-known product, the Firefox Web browser.

But Kovacs, who had a strong mobile background, was also brought in to spur Mozilla’s move to a key arena with the development of its Firefox OS, a mobile operating system. That’s because while Firefox has kept its browser market share against larger rivals such as Google’s Chrome and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and garners a large chunk of revenue from royalties from making Google’s search engine the default in its browser, Mozilla has also had to move past its reliance on desktop software.

Thus, a number of moves, the most significant of which has been Firefox OS. A Web-based platform where all the features and apps are created using the HTML5 Web standard, the project was originally called “Boot to Gecko,” and has largely been aimed at the international market.

As noted by Liz Gannes last summer in a post about Firefox OS:

It has won the support of a crew of global carriers, with the first Firefox OS phones set to launch early next year in Brazil, through Telefónica’s Vivo.

Firefox OS is to be an open mobile platform where every app and function is based on HTML5, with none of the so-called “native apps” specific to a particular operating system.

Want to make a call? HTML5. Want to send a message? HTML5. Want to play a game? HTML5.

The push toward HTML5 as a broader mobile platform comes at a time when some early advocates seem to be moving away from mobile Web applications out of frustration with their performance. For instance, the new version of the Facebook iPhone app has reportedly been rebuilt specifically for iOS to make it much faster. Previous versions had been built around HTML5 in the interest of compatibility across fragmented mobile platforms.

But Mozilla is doubling down on the Web. The named reference to Mozilla’s biggest brand is purposeful. Much as the Firefox browser targeted Internet Explorer, so Firefox OS is a major project meant to disrupt the existing smartphone leaders.

In this case, that’s iOS, Android and Windows Phone — where the operating systems and apps are not as open and compatible as Mozilla and its partners would like.

Firefox OS isn’t going to try to compete with the high end of the market, but rather with entry-level phones at relatively low prices, Mozilla has said. The thrust is to engage first-time smartphone users in emerging markets around the world.

The carrier partners on record supporting the project are now Deutsche Telekom, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Telenor and Etisalat.

Kovacs has also been striking a lot of commercial partnerships, such as a recent software project with Samsung to build a new browser engine for Android and the ARM architecture called Servo, which will be written in Mozilla’s new Rust programming language.

As part of the CEO change, longtime Mozilla leaders Mitchell Baker and Brendan Eich will continue to step up their involvement in the company, with Baker’s title as executive chairman and Eich’s as CTO and SVP of engineering. In other management changes: Jay Sullivan, SVP of products, has been appointed COO; Harvey Anderson, VP of business affairs and general counsel, has been named SVP of business and legal affairs; and Li Gong, who has been running Mozilla’s Asian operations, will also take on the role of SVP of mobile devices.

“We have been intent on making change into mobile and into reinvigorating our relationships with commercial players,” said Baker. “Gary’s been really helpful in developing deep mobile outlook and capabilities, which is critical going forward.”

Who’s going to take up the fight is unclear — which perhaps makes the search for a CEO a little more difficult, especially given Mozilla’s unusual status as both a for-profit and a nonprofit. That can be a hindrance, since it is not headed for an IPO to shower its Silicon Valley employees with lucrative stock.

Kovacs had replaced John Lilly, who left to become a venture partner at Greylock Partners. Lilly also led Mozilla for about two years, and has remained on its board.

He noted that the change of leadership is normal at Mozilla, and also that the job for the next leader is deeply challenging.

“Firefox changed the world, and now we have to orient around how to build mobile,” he said. “And while the odds are still ‘who knows,’ Mozilla is now in a good position to fight the fight.”

As it turns out, Kovacs will talk more about the Firefox OS project — and these changes at Mozilla — when he takes the stage at our D: Dive Into Mobile conference, which takes place next week in New York.

Until then, here’s his memo to staff, which was sent out this morning:

Hello, all,

What a ride!

When I first joined Mozilla in 2010, it was clear that the Web was at a turning point. Competition on desktop was more intense than ever, smartphone adoption was on fire, and new challenges to openness were developing in both areas of these converging worlds. We needed to move faster, pivot hard to mobile, and scale globally. And we needed to change how we operated if we were to lead the Web through these market transitions. It was this challenge that lured me to Mozilla back in 2010, and it was this challenged that kept me engaged ever since. I just knew that if we focused our energies and executed with the passion and urgency that defined us, we would do amazing things together.

And we have! This period has been an incredible time of growth for Mozilla, and for me personally. I couldn’t be more proud of the work we have done — on desktop, on mobile, and in advancing our mission to empower the next 2 Billion Web citizens coming on line for the first time. The project today is led by experienced teams, set on a strong foundation financially and operationally, and with a clear path to the future.

It is my confidence in this team that makes this the right time for me to move on to the next phase of my personal journey. Today, I am announcing that I will be stepping down as CEO of Mozilla later this year. I am committed to continue through the search for a new CEO and to ensure that we do not miss a beat in the process. Following this, I will stay on as an active member of Mozilla’s board of directors — so I am staying within the family to help as much as I can.

So, what next? In 2010, when I told my father I was joining Mozilla, he said “Son, you don’t know anything about cheese.” (he has a strong accent). Last year, after he learned more about us, and our mission, (including how to correctly pronounce our name), he simply said: “Wow, the work you are doing is critical to the world. “lease keep going!” And today, I simply pass along that message: Please keep going! We have momentum, we have a great vision and mission, and we have tremendous support from all of our partners and users for what we are doing. We cannot let up — not for one second! Stay focused, keep going, and keep rocking the free Web!

The world is expecting nothing less!

— gary

And, if you want even more, here’s a video interview I did with Kovacs in early 2011 when he first got to Mozilla:

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus